My Top 5 Highlights from South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal
South Africa is nearly twice the size of Texas and ranks as the 25th largest country by land area, yet many US travelers stick exclusively to visiting a few pockets of the country like Kruger National Park or the Western Cape. This leaves a great many regions of the country wide open for exploration. KwaZulu Natal or KZN (pronounced Kay-Zed-En) is one of these hidden gems. To most of us traveling from the US, KZN typically takes a back seat as our safari expectations revolve around getting in a game drive vehicle and immediately hitting a welcoming committee of elephants, giraffe, zebra, antelope and big cats and in South Africa, Kruger is synonymous with massive herds of grazing animals and the predators that complete that ecosystem. KZN is an entirely different experience and one that I would argue is wilder.
Spend a couple of days on safari in KZN and you will absolutely see the iconic safari animals you’ve traveled so far to witness, including the big 5. The difference is that you and your guides actually need to search through the bush to locate these sightings. On my recent trip to visit KZN I found that I absolutely loved this aspect of the game drives. Among the rolling hills, steep mountains, thickets and trees, each encounter becomes a surprise. I spent four days visiting 4 different lodges along the KZN coastal region, from Durban north to Lake Jozini, which is situated on the Phongolo River and is South Africa’s largest dam. While I had many amazing experiences and stayed at some incredible locations, I thought I would give you my “Top 5 Experiences from KZN.” Not everyone will have the same experiences or see the same sights or even stay at the same lodges but here is my short list of awesome reasons to visit KZN.
1. Zulu Cultural Experience
As the name KwaZulu Natal might suggest, the region is home to the former Zulu Kingdom and most of the locals are still Zulu today. There are many stark differences between Western and Zulu cultures and learning about the Zulu culture was one of my most memorable experiences. The Ghost Mountain Inn has a unique partnership with a local Zulu community and has special permission from one of the community’s cultural representatives to allow guests into his family’s home. Much of the visit is quite informal and I was welcomed as a new friend visiting their family home for the first time.We chatted about his upcoming wedding ceremony which was busily being planned and will include a guest list of over 2,500. Celebrations such as weddings are attended by the entire community and are supported entirely by the groom, his family and the help of his friends. We spoke candidly about his ancestors, family dynamics and about lobolo, the ancient tradition in which the groom negotiates and pays his future in-laws a number cows prior to receiving permission to marry. We talked about chivalry and how our two cultures perceive what is chivalrous. I was fascinated to learn that for our culture it is polite to hold a door open for a lady to precede, for the Zulu this is a sign of cowardice and disrespect. A Zulu man always goes through the door first in order to make sure there is no danger on the other side and to protect those that follow him.
2. AN ELEPHANT’S CURIOSITY
Having already found zebra, hippos, crocs, Cape buffalo, fighting warthogs, waterbuck, elephants, many different bird species and other creatures, we stumbled into a group of young male elephants. I was staying at White Elephant Safari Lodge, so it made sense that the coolest experience came from a curious elephant in this group whose path we crossed while on an evening game drive. An elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscles and its sense of smell is four times stronger than a bloodhound.Not only can they smell water up to several miles away, but they can also smell different pheromones and in many instances, it’s believed they can tell if we humans are nervous, panicked or excited just by how we smell. This elephant, not quite sure what to make of us, walked slowly towards our vehicle with his trunk held high as he waved it through the air for a better whiff. After several minutes and a good sniff, it was decided we were no threat and the elephant continued grazing and gracefully moved along. It was a magical moment to sit back and witness how another species can use their senses to determine its situation and make a decision that in the wild could mean life or death.
3. AMAZING VIEWS FROM THE TOP OF RHINO RIDGE SAFARI LODGE
Situated high on a hill on the edge of Hluhluwe Imfolozi (pronounced shloe-shloe-ey Em-fill-oh-zee) Park, Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is a brand new destination, whose doors opened for business just weeks before my arrival. As an AAC traveler, you would arrive at this lodge by way of a private driver. I however chose to self-drive, giving me an entirely new appreciation for how much a private driver can elevate your safari experience. From the front gate of South Africa’s oldest proclaimed nature reserve, I drove for an hour to reach the lodge. I drove over and around great rolling hills and on roads that were sometimes paved, sometimes dirt and sometimes piles of boulders wedged together to traverse a dry river bed. The guests I spoke with that arrived by private driver hadn’t even noticed the challenging driving conditions and instead enjoyed the amazing landscapes that rose and fell around them.Rhino Ridge lives up to its name, not only does Hluhluwe Imfolozi have the largest population of White Rhino in the world but the lodge sits at the top of a ridge that becomes steeper with every switchback. After walking through the main entrance, you are faced with a great open space with wall of glass on the other side. It was impossible not to be drawn through the doors and onto the back deck where the lodge overlooks what feels like the entire 600 square miles of the park. After high tea I retired to my suite which included a private plunge pool and a nice view of a watering hole at the bottom of the ridge where an elephant slowly marched through the trees and shrubs. Facing east, the next morning’s sunrise was spectacular as we prepared to leave for our game drive. While I was excited to see the park more closely, this unique overlook and stunning views from high above was an amazing highlight.
4. LIONS IN HLUHLUWE IMFOLOZI
Hluhluwe Imfolozi is a great location to attempt to spot the Big 5 and is known as the birthplace of rhino conservation. In 1900, there were fewer than 20 white rhino worldwide. Today, this park alone is home to 1,600 (20,000 worldwide).The park continues to battle the rising issue of rhino poaching and conservation is still the main priority of the park. Each game drive we went on was an opportunity to learn more about the history of South Africa’s oldest nature reserve and the animals that call it home. As we ambled over rocky roads we encountered some amazing sights and experiences. The Cape buffalo and impala were sparring, an older white rhino bull was marking his territory to warn off any younger males from his personal watering hole, and as the day continued we rounded a group of trees to see a giraffe sprinting across an open field. It quickly made its way east in front of our safari vehicle and began to turn south as it slowed to a walk. If you’ve never seen a giraffe at full gallop, wish for it on your next safari. It is strangley mesmerizing; both graceful and clumsy in one stride.Our guide, Lindi, nonchalantly stated the last time she saw a giraffe run that fast it was being chased by lions and so we took the next bend in road and headed in the direction from which it came. As a tourist on a game drive, you quickly learn that safari guides are beyond well trained at seeing what the average eye misses. They use their education, experience, and intuition to create the most unique experiential learning situations in the natural world, and it should never be a surprise when your guide can pick up an animal’s location that is invisible to the rest of us. However when our guide Lindi took a left turn on a dead-end dirt road, then paused and slowly began to reverse the vehicle is it was a huge surprise to see the eyes of a lion materialize in a thickly leaved bush. As luck would have it there were two young lions hiding in the shadows, so well hidden the only way the giraffe would have spotted them would have been by eating leaves from their hiding spot. The expertise of our guide is what created such a memorable experience here. Without her incredible knowledge of the African bush we would have ambled by unaware. These kinds of discoveries take your breath away and remind you that while you are staying at truly magnificent lodges and camps on safari, you are truly in the wild.
5. BLACK RHINO SIGHTING AT THANDA
Thanda Private Game Reserve opened in 2004 as a unique partnership with Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu and Christin and Dan Olofsson. All of the staff members are from the surrounding Zulu community and take great pride in their lodge and their work. This 5 star luxury reserve is another fantastic location to see the Big 5 in KZN and is only a short drive from Hluhluwe Imfolozi. As the last stop on my journey, I wasn’t sure where my expectations should be set.I had already gone on boat cruises with hippos and crocs, seen close to 10 white rhino, dozens of giraffe and elephant, massive herds of Cape buffalo, and had some incredible experiences at some amazing lodges. I arrived at Thanda just in time to drop my luggage and jump on the afternoon game drive vehicle as it headed off. Almost immediately we were faced with an incredible animal encounter; the largest journey of giraffe I’ve ever seen were gathered at a nearby watering hole for a late afternoon drink. There was one bull that stood sentient as almost 20 other giraffe slowly took turns bending their knees and lowering their necks to drink. It was this bull’s responsibility to ward off any predators that might try and take advantage of the other giraffe as they drank, the point they are most vulnerable and exposed. Watching a giraffe drink water is a comical experience, but seeing such a large group was downright amazing! This scene by itself was an incredible encounter but as we turned to leave the watering hole and headed over the closest hill, about 50 yards ahead of us stood a black rhino among the thorny wood bushes and shrubs. Knowing how critically endangered the black rhino is made this encounter ever more special. A shy animal, he was very much wary of our presence and as such we kept our distance while observing him. After seeing so many white rhino earlier on safari, what had been a tough distinction via pictures became perfectly clear. This rhino looked amazingly different, with his head held high and his hooked lips grasping the branches he struck an imposing silhouette on his surroundings. As we sat silently, a grazing herd of Cape buffalo joined us, clearly not concerned with our presence. The sun was sinking into the horizon and soon the sky would be ablaze with color. This was quintessentially the high note to end a safari.
Safari in South Africa